Feds Remove Protections for Black-footed Ferrets' Key Food Supply

Dec 4, 2020

The U-S Forest Service will allow prairie dogs to be eradicated in what had been a protected section of the Thunder Basin National Grassland in northeastern Wyoming. Conservation groups say that makes it almost impossible for the endangered black-footed ferret to recover in the U-S.

Some 95-percent of the prairie dog's historic range has been lost since the 1800s – and today, only 350 endangered ferrets remain in the wild. Chamois Andersen with the group Defenders of Wildlife said allowing prairie dogs, the ferrets' primary food source, to be shot or poisoned would have profound negative effects across the prairie.

"If we lose the prairie dog and if we lose the black-footed ferret, I always attribute it to, like, a rug – and you start pulling at a loose thread and then, it quickly starts to unravel. So, it's really about the health of the ecosystem for our prairie grasslands and plains that we keep these species thriving," said Andersen. 

The Forest Service decision is set to be published in the Federal Register Wednesday, and would remove protections from ten-percent of Thunder Basin that had been set aside to aid ferret recovery by protecting prairie dogs. The agency sa the move will add more vegetation for livestock grazing on public lands, citing its charge to manage lands fidor multiple uses.

Anderson believes the Forest Service decision prioritizes private beef production, and violates the agency's mandate to maintain wildlife on public lands. She adds it doesn't have to be one or the other, noting that prairie dogs and ferrets can coexist with cattle, as they have historically with bison.

"Really, the ranchers don't see it as being a healthy component to the grasslands, they see them as an agricultural pest, competing for grass with their cattle. They have cultural ties to these natural grasslands, but it's also about the economics, how much grass they can have for their cattle," said Andersen.

Critics of the decision warn that lifting protections for black-tailed prairie dogs, considered to be a keystone species, will produce a domino effect across the grassland ecosystem. In addition to ferrets, burrowing owls, mountain plovers and swift foxes also rely on the prairie dog for food and shelter.